Fact and fiction in Livy’s Rome

The Early History of Rome : Books I-V of the History of Rome from its Foundation (Penguin Classics)The Early History of Rome : Books I-V of the History of Rome from its Foundation by Livy

There’s an old cliche about who writes history that I’m sure you’ve heard before. And it’s generally true that the winners get to have the final say. But what if you don’t have that history? What if there’s very little to write? That’s what happened to the Romans.

The early part of ancient Rome’s history was lost over the years, even as far back as the fall of the Roman Republic. The Romans never really wrote about their past; the first person to do so lived around 200BC, some 500 years after the city’s founding. And even then, they wrote more for political than educational aims.

“(T)hey were not interested in historical research as such,” writes the late Robert Ogilvie in the introduction to The Early History of Rome, “but were concerned to use history as a means of reflecting the issues and controversies of their own times.”  In other words, they weren’t too interested in exploring their mythology – which wasn’t really theirs, anyway.

Livy’s first five books of his huge history of Rome stand out in this regard. He repeats myths about Rome’s origins to recreate it’s earliest days, like the raising of Romulus and Remus by a she-wolf, the expulsion of the king Tarquin and the battle of the Cremera. But, as Ogilvie writes, these stories weren’t Roman in origin. Most of these came from ancient Greece; founding figures like Aeneas and Hercules literally came from Greece.

What happened? I don’t really know. I suspect it has something to do with a lack of records, a fire that razed the city in 386 BC and maybe a lack of oral tradition. The Greeks, by comparison, had the works of Homer and Hesiod to fall back on.

This isn’t to say there’s no basis for what happens here. In his great introduction, Ogilvie breaks down the historical origins of Livy’s work; there’s historical precedent for a lot more than you’d think in here, especially later in this volume. There were sources he could fall back upon like a list of magistrates or the Twelve Tables and battles which became part of Roman legend, like the siege of Veii.

The mix of fact and fiction that was Roman history lent itself well to Livy’s talents: with significant gaps to fill in, he acted like a novelist, filling his scenes with drama and conflict. They’re compelling reading, even when he uses them to preach.

Take his account of the siege of Veii. Livy writes that it took 10 years to sack the city, which was well defended and surrounded by water. But a captured mystic gave the Romans some cryptic advice: drain the lake to water their crops and they’d be able to take the city. It was eventually realized this meant to dig tunnels in the lake bed to go under the city’s fortifications. This tunnel was dug and packed with Roman soldiers, ready to invade . Writes Livy:

And now, without warning, it discharged them into the temple of Juno on the citadel. The enemy, who were manning the walls against the threat from outside, were attacked from behind; bolts were wrenched off the gates; buildings were set on fire as women and slaves on the roof slung stones and tiles at the assailants. A fearful din arose: yells of triumph, shrieks of terror, wailing of women, and the pitiful crying of children; in an instant of time, the defenders were flung from the walls and the town gates opened; Roman troops came pouring through, or climbed the now defenceless walls; everything was overrun, in every street the battle raged. (pg 365)

Passages like that are what makes Livy’s book shine: while he recounts the history, which may not be exactly based in fact, he creates the tension and drama the event deserves. He does what a lot of historians, even now, can’t do: not just tell what happened, but tell it like it’s just happened. And it’s not just the battles that read so well: When he has the time and space to go to work on a big event – be it a speech, political battle or tale from daily life in the city, Livy’s writing is far from dry.

It represents why casual readers should like this book. These momentous occasions come alive; it’s no wonder that of his giant history of Rome, the only surviving books deal with some of Rome’s greatest battles. There is a lot to be learned here about the city, sure, but it’s also fun reading. It’s kind of the secret to books like this: they may be valuable to scholars, but because they’re usually a fun and compelling read to boot – most of the time, anyway.

Personally, I found the book dragged between such episodes. Seemingly every few pages Livy recounts domestic details like land reform or grain distribution and election results which surely weren’t all that interesting some 2000 years ago. Reading who was named what for what number time gets old fast.

That said, there’a lot to like here. If you’re somebody with an interest in ancient Rome, this is a good place to start.

Rating: 7.5/10

Recommended for those into ancient history, Roman or otherwise, especially people who’ve read Greek histories. People that liked the HBO Series on Rome might like it, but be careful: those events took place some 350 years after where this book leaves off. I personally liked Penguin’s Aubrey de Selincourt translation, but Oxford’s translation looks good too.

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